My rating: 3 of 5 stars
We are sometimes interested, in these electronic pages, not only in perennial classics but also in the popular books of past eras, at least ones that are still relevant in the present but intriguingly distant from our own insistent concerns and obsessions. Philosopher Allan Bloom’s epochal and bestselling 1987 polemic—a key text in the rise of neoconservatism—meets both criteria. It also meets another criterion, that of being broadly misunderstood and therefore worth clarifying. This is not, for instance, an obviously Reaganite book, if the Reagan era connotes a period of money-minded success-worship. While Bloom expresses approval of Reagan’s calling the USSR the “evil empire,” which has a pleasingly metaphysical ring to it as opposed to talk of communism’s merely different “values,” he otherwise dismisses the Gipper as a celebrity vulgarian and seems to prefer Jimmy Carter among then-recent presidents as the more earnest Christian. Tellingly, Bloom also describes the introduction of the MBA degree into the university as a “great disaster” that orients education away from an investigation of the true and the good and toward mere greed and materialism.
With these misconceptions out of the way, back to our first two criteria: still relevant but alien to the present. Contemporary American liberalism now finds itself stretched so thin in its war against a many-headed hydra of populist irrationalism and reactionism that one of its wings will, if it’s being consistent, have to issue apologies for ever having spurned this book as a mere neoconservative screed, while another of its factions will have to redouble the original denunciation and expel the wicked text from polite consideration. To take the second proposition first, the germinal event for Bloom’s thinking about relativism and the university was an armed occupation of Cornell University buildings by African-American students advocating curricular and other reforms in the late 1960s. Young people brandishing guns in the name of collective racial rights notoriously evoked for Bloom the specter of fascism, and his manifesto consequently likens faculty supporting the insurgency to Heidegger saluting Nazi youth in the 1930s. Bloom gathers the whole ’60s counterculture, artistic and political, into one shock-the-bourgeoisie corps of Hitler Youth animated by the Dionysian spirit of music in perhaps the book’s most infamous sentence: “Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same.” He goes on:
The fact that in Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us. In both places the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. Commitment was understood to be profounder than science, passion than reason, history than nature, the young than the old. In fact, as I have argued, the thought was really the same. The New Left in America was a Nietzscheanized-Heideggerianized Left. The unthinking hatred of “bourgeois society” was exactly the same in both places.
If there can be no ethical boundary to an oppressed party’s fight for its rights, including open political violence, if there can be no equivocation about a universal ethic of resistance when particular rights are infringed, as one faction of American left-liberalism claimed in the 1960s and now claims again, then Bloom’s avowed admiration for Lincoln, King, and the inherent anti-racism of the Constitutional order (“Black slavery was an aberration that had to be extinguished, not a permanent feature of our national life”), coupled with his abhorrence for Black Power, will come across as little more than a white Jewish man’s privileged evasion. Yet Bloom is most aggrieved not by identity politics as such but by the relativism that in his view subtends it, and this emphasis may deserve our attention in a period of public epistemological crisis. Bloom moreover traces the influence of relativism on American life to a series of antecedents that the contemporary liberal will want to take seriously, including early-20th-century Confederate apologists for whom slavery and Jim Crow were just one more expression of pluralist American culture, and thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger and their later popularizers, for whom there is no truth and no good but only humanly-constructed values.
Bloom’s book is not, however, a polemic against “postmodernism”: Bloom never uses this word, dismisses Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes in one sentence as derivative and belated “Parisian Heideggereans,” and is erudite enough to understand that the relativism problem in western culture started with Rousseau if not with Machiavelli. So much of The Closing of the American Mind, in fact, is such an intricate intellectual history that I have a hard time imagining the partisan book-buyers who made it a bestseller read much past the opening chapters where Bloom tediously complains about his students, claiming that ’80s youth were shallow, blasé, and unserious, and were made that way by a tamer version of the same force that impelled their militant ’60s parents: popular psychology and sociology that promoted a soft version of Rousseauist sentimentality and Nietzschean relativism. This assertion leads Bloom to the heart of the book, an intellectual history the longest chapter of which is provocatively titled “From Socrates’s Apology to Heidegger’s Rektoratsrede.” He divides this history into three stages, roughly corresponding to the common division among ancient, early modern, and late modern periods.
Bloom’s history begins with ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who understood that their pursuit of universal reason necessarily brought them into conflict with their society, since every society is founded not on reason but on irrational customs and myths: “Since myths are there first and give men their first opinions, philosophy means a critical destruction of myth in favor of truth for the sake of freedom and living naturally.” They therefore kept a wary distance from politics, at best advising aristocrats with enough wealth to free them from worldly concerns, and had before them the cautionary example of Socrates, martyred by society for his infidelity to its gods. By contrast, the philosophers of the early modern period—Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, etc.—tried to solve this conflict between philosophy and the polis by convincing not the aristocrats but the general public that universal reason in the form of applied science could improve their everyday lives by bringing nature under human control. This initially successful and revolutionary public intervention, however, had the unfortunate consequence of watering philosophy down from a quest for the highest good to a search for more mundane scientific goods to please the people.
With ancient philosophy’s Platonic telos thus amputated by a more worldly science, Rousseau inaugurates the late modern period by protesting this dry and bloodless enlightenment in the name of sentiment and culture, psyche and tradition. From here it is a short step to Nietzsche’s perspectivism—all values are contingent cultural constructs effected by the will-to-power—which is systematized in turn by Freud and Weber. The burgeoning social sciences then popularly disseminate Nietzscheanism as a replacement for the Enlightenment via a corps of psychologists and sociologists who usurp the philosopher’s role in the polis. (Along the way, Bloom claims, this relativism also destroyed the Weimar Republic and left a clear path for Hitler’s accession to power. He ridicules the conventional left-liberal view of this history in a sarcastic sentence that, for some, may resonate in the present: “The trouble with Weimar was simply that the bad guys won.”) During this transformation from Enlightenment to relativism, the modern university, founded in the 19th century on the Kantian division between the realm of necessity (studied by the natural sciences) and the realm of freedom (studied by the humanities), is left with no obvious reason to exist other than practical scientific research. No one really believes any longer that the humanities pertain to anything other than contingent cultural customs, which the student doesn’t need to learn from wise men and which can’t really command the loyalty of prior transcendent goods anyway.
Leaving aside the obvious external objections we might raise to this argument—its Eurocentrism, the excessively causal role it grants philosophy as opposed to political, economic, technological, and other developments in modern history—Bloom’s historical narrative can also be contested entirely on its own terms. He admires the United States as a society founded on the Enlightenment, a country that once recognized how its prosperity depended on freedom of intellectual inquiry in the universities despite its public religiosity, and laments that the Nietzscheanization of the academic left and its diaspora in the professions has called this Enlightened commitment to truth into question even as it threatens also to disarticulate religion. Yet he admits, before he begins his philosophical history proper, that Socratic ignorance is the end of philosophical study:
Socratic dialectic takes place in speech and, although drawn forward by the search for synthesis, always culminates in doubt. Socrates’ last word was that he knew nothing.
Socrates, that is, ends in the same place Nietzsche starts, because Socratic skepticism and Nietzschean perspectivism, not Platonic-Enlightenment rationalism or Christian revelation, are actually true. By burying this concession where the reader won’t be looking for it, Bloom effectively intimates that the public should not know it, that the Socratic thinker should instead feed the pious populace the Enlightenment line in public to keep the scholars afloat on state and private subsidies, while in the university the philosophers and their best pupils disport themselves among the values.
In Bloom’s defense, this double-talk is not actually an unusual argument, nor, despite the neoconservatives’ reputation for duplicity, one confined to his political tendency. Susan Sontag was more famous for attacking neoconservatives from the intellectual left than for being one, but she came to nearly the same conclusion about the disjunction between the intelligentsia’s skepticism and the public’s reason at the end of an essay beloved by left-liberals, “Fascinating Fascism”:
The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established.
In other words, and anticipating Bloom, Nietzsche was of course right about everything, including aesthetics, but he’s too dangerous a toy for the people to play with—better just give the children Jesus and John Locke. In our own time, the infamous Steve Bannon never misses an opportunity to rail against neoconservatism from the populist right. Yet on his extremely popular (albeit in some quarters proscribed) podcast, he delivers the Allan Bloom thesis with a comically frank incoherence, as he laments the disappearance of our Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment heritage in one breath, and then in another utters one of his catch-phrase Nietzschean slogans: “This isn’t a quest for truth, it’s a contest for power!”—as if this were an assertion with which the natural philosopher Thomas Jefferson or the sincerely Christian John Adams would have agreed. Bloom’s is, again, not an uncommon argument, only a dishonest one.
In deference to Bloom’s philosophic master Leo Strauss, though, might we instead of deriding his thesis as dishonest rather hail it as esoteric? The mother of queer theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, credited Bloom with teaching her to read for subtext, a cryptic hermeneutic that influenced her own celebrated sexual inquiry into the putatively straight canon. But Bloom reveals himself to be the grandfather of queer theory in his own voice when he argues that the purpose and method of education is seduction:
A significant number of students used to arrive at the university physically and spiritually virginal, expecting to lose their innocence there. Their lust was mixed into everything they thought and did. They were painfully aware that they wanted something but were not quite sure exactly what it was, what form it would take and what it all meant. The range of satisfactions intimated by their desire moved from prostitutes to Plato, and back, from the criminal to the sublime. Above all they looked for instruction. Practically everything they read in the humanities and social sciences might be a source of learning about their pain, and a path to its healing. This powerful tension, this literal lust for knowledge, was what a teacher could see in the eyes of those who flattered him by giving such evidence of their need for him. His own satisfaction was promised by having something with which to feed their hunger, an overflow to bestow on their emptiness. His joy was in hearing the ecstatic “Oh, yes!” as he dished up Shakespeare and Hegel to minister to their need. Pimp and midwife really described him well. The itch for what appeared to be only sexual intercourse was the material manifestation of the Delphic oracle’s command, which is but a reminder of the most fundamental human desire, to “know thyself.”
Philosophy is intellectual reproduction, conducted with queer contempt for the public’s investment in heteronormative breeding as it takes place without reproductive bodies. The philosopher transacts and witnesses the virgin student’s coupling with the classic to bring forth the infant thinker. This Platonic love affair of the mind is the queer tradition Bloom seeks to preserve from the incursion, armed or otherwise, into the university idyll of the straight and the normal, who are, whether they are left-wing protesters or go-getter business students, too busy with their own interests to think. At such erotic intellection he only hints in the book, since stating it outright would have barred him from conservative adulation in the Moral Majority 1980s. How this subliminal argument would affect The Closing of the American Mind’s reception today by the liberal cognoscenti, who might well be attracted to its attack on moral relativism in an era when they enjoin everyone to choose the “right side of history”—which means the transhistorical truth if it means anything—is in this moment of maximal ideological chaos anybody’s guess.